Zoe Chavet profiles the career of famed animator and educator Cornelius Cole III.
It was a crisp autumn evening this past Friday, and the lights of Burbank’s Animation Guild were burning bright at the packed opening of The Fine Art of Corny Cole, honoring late animator. The memorial show, which celebrates the life and later work of the prolific artist and teacher, saw a full house to start things off, with the tone of the evening far from mournful. Instead, an atmosphere of reunion and fond remembrance persisted, as family, colleagues, and former students all came to pay tribute to this clearly beloved man.
Described by those who knew him as profoundly inspirational, tireless, and genuine, Corny Cole touched the lives of hundreds of artists in his long career. Many spoke of him with great fondness, claiming him as the reason they had discovered their own passion for animation. Everyone seemed to have an anecdote about his playfulness, his love of pranks, or his unyielding commitment to social justice. Students who had him at the California State Summer School of the Arts (CSSA) years ago mentioned how they still kept the packets of notes he’d given out, with the command “Draw every day!” written boldly across the front. Animators who had worked with Cole shared their stories of production cram sessions, citing his unflagging energy for what he loved to do.
Born in 1930, Cole was a Southern Californian native, who grew up surfing on the beaches of Santa Monica. He attended the Chouinard School of Art in the 1950’s and, though he never got a degree, said that he spent a total of thirteen years in and out, always loving the chance to draw.
Soon after, Cole started at Warners, where he worked alternatively as an assistant and animator on Looney Tunes with Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, then as a production designer on UPA’s Gay Purr-ee (1962), and The Phantom Tollbooth (1969). Cole became known for his distinctive design style, and went on to design for Lee Mishkin’s Oscar-winning Is It Always Right To Be Right? (1970), as well as doing boards and design for Richard Williams’ 1977 feature Raggedy Ann and Andy, and on early work for Williams’ infamous The Thief and the Cobbler.
Cole would go on to work on numerous short projects, including commercial campaigns for Duraflame, Baskin-Robbins, and Log Cabin Syrup. He was a huge force behind the layout and character design of the television hit Alvin and the Chipmunks. Not all his work aimed at general audiences; he also labored over a short piece intended for 1981’s Heavy Metal. Called Heaven and Hell, the sequence deftly showcases Cole’s matured, delicate style, and the kinetic flow of lines and figures for which he had become known. In 2006, Cole was the recipient of the Windsor McKay Annie Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Corny had once told former boss Chuck Jones, “The art world is out there in the street." True to his beliefs, Cole would go out to in L.A. or to Skid Row to sketch real people as often as possible. During his time working as part of Chuck Jones’ unit, he proudly shared a studio in L.A. with other fine artists, and continued to stay in touch with a large network of amateurs and professionals. After running a variety of workshops over the years, many for free and out of peer’s houses, Cole began teaching at the California Institute of the Arts in 1992, where he remained until 2009.
In addition to his tremendous body of professional and personal work, Cole was a devoted activist and humanitarian, one who sought to pass on his views to his many students.
"He would always tell his life drawing students 'you're looking at a human being up there. Until you understand that, you won't be able to draw them, to represent them,'" recalled CalArts Character Animation faculty member Steve Brown. Brown, like many who new Cole, spoke with great enthusiasm for his humanist point of view, and the broad sense of compassion that he brought to both his teaching and his private art practice.
Cole remained a visible and influential figure in the hallways of CalArts, where he jokingly referred to himself and his walker as “the slowest roadrunner you’ve ever seen!”
"I had him as a mentor my first year. I remember showing him my work…that he took a misunderstanding and made it into something beautiful," gushed current Character Animation student Tahnee Gehm, who was fortunate enough to be in one of the last classes Cole taught. Gehm, and other students, all remarked on Cole’s liveliness and sharpness of mind, as well as his advice to stay loose, and draw constantly.
Unfortunately, bad luck hit Cole in recent years. In the fall of 2008, a wildfire claimed Cole’s home, and all of his artwork, with the exception of what was in his office at CalArts. The animation community immediately sprang into action, with CalArts providing housing, and The Creative Talent Network holding an online fundraiser. CTN ultimately presented Cole with a check of over $12,000, a testament to how deeply Cole had affected those around him. A shocked and moved Cole was heard to remark, “This is ridiculous!”
Cole retired from CalArts after an injury to his hip in 2009. He maintained a close relationship with the Character Animation department, returning for a lecture organized by longtime friend Bob Kurtz. Though in poor health from his long battle with MSA (Multiple System Atrophy), Cole was as sly and spirited as ever.
Cole died the morning of August 8th of this year, at the age of 80, surrounded by his loving family. It is doubtless that memories of his warm heart, endless encouragement, and sparkling wit will forever keep him in the thoughts of those who knew him. Rest easy, old roadrunner. You’ve surely earned it.
The Fine Art of Corny Cole is on display through October 28 at The Animation Guild, 1105 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank, CA 91505. The gallery is open Fridays, 11 am-2 pm.
Zoe Chevat is a Los Angeles-based animator, graphic artist, sculptor, and author of both academic and fictional work. Originally from northern New Jersey, she graduated from Bennington College and is currently an MFA candidate in Experimental Animation at CalArts. She has worked on music videos and shorts for AfterEd TV, UnBroiled Inc., and Ariel Hart/DeMille Productions, as well as the anthological Today's Forecast, which debuted at the Internationale Kurzfilmtage, Oberhausen, Germany. A proud cinephile, she has been blogging about gender and film/video media for female geek-oriented newsblog The Mary Sue, and has been a recurring guest on a new podcast series for Anime News Network, entitled "Chicks on Anime".
Most of her critical writing is concerned with the portrayal of sexuality and gender in genre work, with a particular focus on trope subversion for fun and profit. She provides a ground-level insider's view on the new generation of animation fans and creators, with an eye to negotiating that tricky space between high and low art…or at least to rattling some cages along the way.
For more rants, spewings, and inky scribbles, follow along at http://www.zoechevat.com.